When I taught college composition, the question “Is slavery wrong?” was one I raised so that students could hone their argumentative skills while pausing to reflect on value of other human beings, and the nature of history (since of course, for Americans, the question evokes the Civil War, its origins, and its consequences, with which we still live).
In the commentary argument on Scientia Salon (linked in my previous post on ethics), at one point I raised the question “Is slavery wrong?” and followed that up with “And how did it go away?” which I reminded my interlocutor was a trick question. Surprisingly, my opponent in this debate refused to answer the question, which set off a fire storm in the comments. I tried to provide a broad surveillance over the issue, remarking the historical issues, as well as opposition to slavery from different perspectives, in an effort to draw my opponent into a direct discussion of both theoretical and practical ethics, but he refused this as well. So I never got around to putting forth my own position on the matter; so I would like to do that here.
First we must remember that there have been several forms of slavery practice historically, as well as some forms being practiced today – which is why “And how did it go away?” was a trick question.
However, all forms of slavery share two basic premises:
1. The slave, or those worthy to be enslaved, are either a) not truly human or b) some form of lesser human.
2. Because the slave is less than human or some sort of lesser human, the slave master is allowed total control over the body and life of the slave, without responsibility or account, much as in the same way that it is generally presumed that farmers have total control over the bodies and lives of livestock, or as we still presume that pet owners have total control over their pets.
If premise 1, a, cannot be allowed, then premise 2 cannot be allowed, since the argument that the slave is not human, and thus requires or somehow deserves total control, is simply nonsense.
Now, it is possible to argue that premise 1, b, that the slave is only some inferior human, will get us some sort of “humane” or relatively non-violent form of slavery, but this is not really the case. Regardless of degree, if it is allowed that the slave is human, in any measure, then arguing for such “humane” control is pointless, because some level of violence against another human will be inevitable in a slave-holding context. The fact is that if the slave-master has total control of the slave’s body and life, then whether he or she chooses to enact it is irrelevant – the point remains that whatever is done to the slave cannot be held to ethical, moral, or legal account. Thus the presumed “humane” character of the slave-holder’s behavior is subverted by the context in which such behavior occurs. (One cannot be a “humane” slave-holder, no matter how hard one tries.)
It should also be remembered that violence, force intervening in the behavior of another, need not engage physical action on the purveyor’s part; if the slave wishes to turn left down the road, and the slave master orders that he or she turn right, that is a violent denial of the slave’s own volition in the matter.
However, if we do assume premise 1, b, then an anti-slavery argument can be still be mounted. Even “lesser” humans, it can be argued, still obtain the rights and respect owed any human, just because they are intrinsically human. And of course, if we argue that they are human absolutely, without regard of any supposed degree, then slavery simply must be abolished as a thoroughly unjustified act of violence against another human being.
I raised this problem, first, in terms of the way the debates concerning slavery led up to its elimination in the US through the Civil War. My opponent on Scientia Salon tried to argue that, at least in America, many had simply taken a dislike to slavery and changed their opinions on it. But this can’t possibly be the case. As I noted at one point, slavery is a a perceived good for those of the slave-holding class, until some oppositional thought intervenes. So what was this oppositional thought?
There is an answer. In the debates leading up to the Civil War, one important point of disagreement had to do with the question of whether Africans were even human, and if they were, what kind of human were they. As political critics have noted, even most white abolitionists thought Africans as lesser human beings; but they were considered human being nonetheless. Some in the slavery apologists would not even grant that.
Let’s take that question and think them back through history a few hundred years. Europeans had always been aware of those of different ethnic origins than themselves, primarily from West Asia and North Africa. But the 15th century saw a major, rapid expansion of European experience with peoples of different ethnicity, colors, cultures, and languages, as European explorers, traders, and, of course, colonizers ranged the whole of the globe searching for greater wealth and (for some) new discoveries.
These experiences with many different cultures and many different peoples, raised the question of exactly what it meant to “be human.” In the raising of the question, certain unfortunate biases formed; but also, it became apparent that the definition of “human” could not be deployed to exclude those with whom we could learn to communicate – and those with whom we could procreate – without considerable corruption of reason. Thus many Europeans, and later Americans, were forced to include a wide variety of human life forms into their definition of “human” (an issue with which we struggle still today). In other words, the idea came first, what was felt about it came after.
So why did the Civil War happen? There were many cogent social, political, and largely economic issues involved; but I suggest that part of the problem was that many of the slave holders were simply adamant that Africans could not be human. Their feeling corrupted their reason; this was clearly not simply a matter of opinion – they were willing to die (and to kill) for a false definition of what it could possibly mean to be human.
The other example I gave during my Scientia Salon debate (again, unanswered), concerned, what could we say to a contemporary Romanian slave-master who has just bought a 13 year old Turkish girl (a quite unfortunately real instance of contemporary slavery). Yet the answer is quite clear. First, of course, it must be noted that we will not change the whore-master’s mind, he has money at stake! So our argument takes place in the realm of politics, and law, both locally and internationally. Our argument must be that i) a female is not a lesser form of human life; ii) a Turk is not a lesser form of human life; iii) any human life, just as being human, deserves the rights and respect of any other human life.
This last, iii, can be argued from many different perspectives – Christian, Kantian, Pragmatist, whatever. Yet surely its foundation is simple recognition that the human is what is most valuable to us, not because it is what we ‘feel,’ but because it is who we are.
Certain circumstances allow that we tolerate the total control of certain humans by others, given that they have transgressed shared values or laws egregiously (i.e., e.g., following the legal determination in a court of criminal law). But nothing allows us to tolerate this concerning peoples whose only transgression is being born a certain ethnicity or a certain gender.
The question of “lesser forms of human” is biologically dead, as it ought to be. But even if we were to accept this, here’s the problem: Whatever degree of being human, the existential fact of being human is absolute – we are either human or we are not. And if we are human, then we treat other humans as do ourselves. Whether we feel this or not, whether that is our opinion or not, reason demands it of us.